It started with Mom patting Dad’s belly. He’d packed on a little something, she said, her lips curling. About a month later, we knew. Some months after that, we laid him down on the grass, and the screams permeated through the leafless trees of the old woods.
The night before, Mom put little Layla to sleep, then went off to bed, leaving me and Dad out in the backyard beside the fire. He’d gained all that weight, the way we knew he would. His face engorged, eyes jaundiced, breath foul, hair rough and coarse and overgrown. His fingernails dug like stakes into his skin, his blood dried and caked into dark, graveled crusts beneath them.
“Are you scared?” I asked him.
He smiled, shook his head. “Not since my dad did it.”
I remember pulling a carton of cigarettes from my back pocket, him waving it away. “It’s not just us,” he said, grazing his belly with his palm. “Bad for them, too.”
“What was he like?” I asked, later that night. “Your dad, I mean.”
He took a deep breath, exhaled in a low rumble that reeked of raw meat. That’s all we’d fed to him in the weeks before.
“You remind me of him sometimes.” And I thought I saw him smile again for the last time.
We sat in silence for a little while, listened as the wind sang from the trees, the water from the creek beyond sifting and rolling through and over the earth.
“I’m going to miss you.” I didn’t look at him then. I didn’t want him to see me. And then I felt his hand, huge and gnarled and firm and strong, as he gripped my shoulder.
We hardly spoke the next morning, any of us. Mom couldn’t even look at Dad. Layla couldn’t stop.
That evening, Mom held Layla close to her and covered her eyes. “Shush, Baby,” Mom whispered to her. “Shush now.” And Layla tried to swat Mom’s hand away so she could see. She was still young. She didn’t know. She couldn’t.
Dad lay on the grass, his head nestled at the roots of a tree with gray bark and twisted roots. We’d brought rope at his request. “Real tight,” he said to me and Mom. And when I took his right hand, he pulled me close, whispered to me in a croak so quiet that even Mom couldn’t hear, “You be a man.” His breath was pungent, eyes wide and lined and yellow. “Running scared, none of that. You take care of them now, hear me?”
We tied him up tight, and in the looming cover of the woods, he began to scream.
It was only when the agony truly took him that Layla began to cry, and I realized I was drenched with sweat. The ropes worked; he writhed, his legs spasming, contorting so far apart we thought they might break from his hips unless we cut him soon. The knife shook in my hand as I made the incision. Mom set little Layla on the ground away from us. She reached inside him. The screams died when she pulled the litter from Dad. Covered in blood, they were all just little bundles of fur.
We left Dad there, carried the pups back home. Mom and Layla lay theirs down in the backyard, watched them wriggle and yip softly in the moonlit grass. I looked to the woods, the thin trees swaying in the wind, and I wondered if Dad’s body would last through winter.
I looked at the pups in my arms. They huddled together, not knowing they were brothers and sisters, and I remembered Layla as a newborn, how she whined and squealed, but almost never cried.
I still wonder if wolves howl at birth. I hadn’t listened. I just kept thinking, be a man, be a man, be a man.